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A mericans go to the polls on Tuesday, with President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry running neck in neck down to the wire. Once again it is an election too close to call — a reminder of the 2000 race, whose final outcome hung in the balance for 36 days because of disputes over vote counting. One can only hope that nothing of the sort happens this time around — in Florida or any other state.

To prevent similar confusion at polling stations, election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — which includes the United States — will be on hand in Florida and other key states. It is of crucial importance, not only to the U.S. but to the rest of the world as well, that the 2004 election be conducted without a hitch.

It is hard to predict with reasonable certainty what kind of verdict America’s 218 million voters will deliver. But if only American newspaper publishers and editors were to vote, Mr. Kerry would win big. According to a tally (as of Oct. 25) by the Editor and Publisher magazine — which keeps tabs on newspapers — Mr. Kerry collected 125 ballots from dailies, compared with 96 for Mr. Bush. The conventional wisdom, however, is that newspaper editorials have little influence on Americans’ voting behavior.

Nevertheless, it is highly significant that many newspapers have switched sides from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. Of those that supported a Democratic candidate in 2000, only two now support Mr. Bush. By contrast, at least 35 of those that backed Mr. Bush four years ago now endorse Mr. Kerry.

This seems to reflect a pervasive sense of insecurity among Americans. It also seems to echo a feeling of uncertainty that many people around the world harbor toward the U.S. — more precisely, a prevailing perception that the world has become more divided and more confused since the Bush administration came into office.

In fact, polls indicate that criticism of the Bush team’s handling of international affairs is spreading globally. In a 35-nation survey published by the University of Maryland in September, for example, an average 46 percent of respondents said they want to see Mr. Kerry win, while Mr. Bush was favored by less than half that number — 20 percent. Other international surveys have produced similar results.

American voters face two broad questions. First, what has the Bush administration achieved, or not achieved, in the past four years? Second, should the U.S. stay the course under Mr. Bush, or should it take a new course under Mr. Kerry?

Four years ago, mindful of his narrow victory, Mr. Bush vowed to pursue a domestic agenda that would promote cooperation between the Republican and Democratic parties. In the area of foreign policy, he pledged to take a humble posture. Events since — both at home and abroad — show, however, that those promises have gone largely by the wayside.

In foreign affairs, the Bush administration has followed a unilateralist policy, creating an image of America as an arrogant superpower bent on moving and shaking the world as it likes, and thus making light of the universal system of international law. For example, Washington withdrew from the Kyoto treaty designed to prevent global warming. It also pulled out from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. It has refused to sign a treaty establishing the International Criminal Court.

The crisis in Iraq is a stark reminder that such “go-it-alone” diplomacy has its limitations. The security situation there shows no definite signs of improving, despite the fact that the country regained sovereignty under an interim government in June. This is largely the result of a U.S.-led “preemptive war” that was launched without the explicit backing of the United Nations.

The war has not only spread the threat of terror around the globe, but also created deep rifts between the U.S. and some of its long-standing allies, such as France and Germany. If Mr. Kerry is right, the U.S. made a monumental mistake in going to war the way it did.

The American electorate has two choices. One is an “a la carte diplomacy” of promoting U.S. interests one-sidedly on the back of overwhelming military power and accepting multilateral talks on a case-by-case basis only. The other is a multilateral approach — one that Mr. Kerry advocates — which emphasizes the importance of rebuilding alliance relationships to make America stronger and safer.

The question, of course, is which choice is better for the U.S. and for the world at large. If international polls are the guide, the Kerry approach seems to have a clear advantage, but American opinion is divided down the middle. The world is holding its collective breath, too, until the election results are known.

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